Laowa is a somewhat lesser known third party lens manufacturer. Having produced a variety of high quality lenses for Sony cameras over the past few years, they’ve started to grow in popularity.
A few months prior, we reviewed the Laowa 9mm F2.8 which was a wide angle lens for APS-C that claimed to have “zero distortion”.
Today, we’ll be looking at the manual focus full frame (Sony a7 series) variant: the Laowa 12mm F2.8. Can the full frame version live up to the “zero distortion” claim as well? Let’s dive right in.
Looking for just a quick summary before jumping in?
- Excellent image quality
- Incredible build quality
- Fun and accurate manual focusing
Size & Weight
To start, we’ll talk about the size of the lens. The Laowa 12mm F2.8 is fairly compact, coming in at only 3.3 inches (8.4cm) which is a pretty average size for a full frame lens.
The weight, however, is quite hefty, weighing a rather chunky 21.4oz (608g). This is quite heavy, but I found that it still balanced well on my a7iii.
Is the lens well built?
All that weight has to come from somewhere though, and that is from the excellent build quality of this lens. There’s absolutely no plastic anywhere with the exception of the lens cap.
It feels almost like a classic, well-built vintage lens, offering a complete all-metal built, even down to the lens hood. Speaking of the lens hood, there are, technically, two.
The larger one, also made of metal, is a petal-shaped hood that is both removable and easily reversible (for storage). The other “hood” is a small protective bump-out designed to keep the curved front element safe from damage.
The lens is not weather-sealed in any way, but thanks to the simple non-electronic and fully manual design, it shouldn’t be as susceptible to damage from dust or moisture.
Overall, I’d say the lens certainly feels built to last. Although not quite up to the level of a GM lens perhaps, it’s still built like a tank and I have no doubts that it’ll survive for a long, long time.
Aesthetics & Ergonomics
In addition to the exceptional build quality, the Laowa 12mm F2.8 is downright gorgeous. The text engravings are a mixture of red and white which contrasts extremely well against the sleek black lens barrel.
The silver ring near the lens mount combined with the blue ring near the front element look excellent, completing the premium look and feel of this beautiful lens.
As I stated prior, it looks like it could be a classic, vintage lens both in terms of the incredible build quality and the beautiful aesthetics.
As for ergonomics, this lens is a joy to use. The aperture ring is smooth but just clicky enough to provide tactile and accurate feedback by feel. The focusing ring (more on that later) is positioned well and feels quite comfortable to use.
If I’m honest, however, the Laowa is a rather heavy lens so it can start to cause hand fatigue after shooting for a few hours. It’s a lens that I would definitely toss into my backpack at times to give my wrists a break.
Ultra-wide angle lenses can be a bit hit-or-miss when it comes to sharpness, but the Laowa 12mm F2.8 performed quite well.
When wide open, the centers of the frame were impressively sharp, but as with most lenses wide open, the far corners had substantial fall-off of clarity. Not too bad though, considering the wide aperture.
Stopping down evens everything out, providing nearly perfect sharpness across the frame besides, again, the extreme far corners. This rivals even the Laowa’s more expensive OEM options.
Overall, pretty solid performance when it comes to sharpness. It’s not flawless, sure, but given the ultra-wide angle, it can’t be perfect. In reality, you won’t notice the minor corner softness unless you’re shooting with a high megapixel body such as the a7RIV.
Is it actually “zero distortion”?
Next up, let’s talk distortion. The claim “zero-distortion” is mostly true in the case of the Laowa 12mm F2.8. The only thing I noticed was that near the edge of the frame there was some very minor curvature.
When photographing a house, for example, at the very edges of the frame you might see some extremely minimal “bending” of architectural elements. Overall, it’s really not a problem, but I figured it was worth mentioning as it does dispute the “zero-d” claim of this lens.
The only other thing to note is that there’s a weird “keystone” effect when shooting upwards. This can make trees and other tall, straight objects look very odd depending on your angle. Here’s a much better visual representation from slrlounge.
Overall, yes, the lens pretty much has zero distortion.
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Optical Quirks & Flaws
Now that we’ve touched on distortion (or lack-thereof), we’ll look at any other optical quirks or flaws of this lens.
First, at wide apertures, the Laowa 12mm F2.8 suffers from quite a bit of vignetting. While this is easily fixed in post-processing, it’s extreme enough where you run the risk of introducing digital noise from pushing up the exposure. Stopping down does wonders for fixing this.
Next up, flare resistance is pretty solid, but not always. In most situations, it’s very well controlled and the lens doesn’t suffer from any sort of drop in contrast. However, sometimes a light source will cause all sorts of craziness, and it seems to be only in rare cases. Very odd, but again, it’s rare.
Finally, chromatic aberrations are minor and very easily controlled. The extreme corners suffer a bit, but it’s nothing that a quick click of “remove chromatic aberrations” in post processing can’t fix.
Focusing & Other Notes
To put it short and simple, the manual focusing experience on the Laowa 12mm F2.8 was superb. The focusing ring itself is large enough for easy operation and has a nice, ribbed metal grip.
The throw is about 180 degrees, which may seem like a lot until you consider this is an ultra-wide angle lens, so almost everything is always in focus anyways.
Speaking of rings, the aperture ring is quite nice as well. As stated prior in the article, it’s smooth yet clicky, and I was never worried about bumping it out of place on accident.
Is this lens good for astrophotography?
Given the focal length, some photographers may consider using the Laowa 12mm F2.8 for astro shots.
It should be noted that there is some moderate coma (“stretched” stars) near the edges of the frame along with some other weird abberations.
That being said, it’s quite the wide lens, so without cropping or zooming in, it’s unlikely you’ll notice any substantial issues. Additionally, the zero distortion element prevents weird and abnormal stretching.
Overall, a decent lens for astrophotography, but not quite the very best.
My Final Thoughts
At the end of my reviews, I like to offer up a few alternatives. If you don’t need the “zero distortion” feature of this lens and are instead simply looking for a wide angle, there’s a few options.
The main alternative is the Voigtlander 15mm f4.5. It’s very expensive, but tiny and offers unmatched quality.
All in all, the Laowa 12mm F2.8 is an incredibly niche lens that only some photographers will be interested in. The zero distortion element allows for near-flawless photos of architecture, real estate, or any other type of photography that demands straight and clean lines.
In addition to the zero distortion aspect, this lens offers solid sharpness, a lovely manual focus experience, and some of the best build quality I’ve seen.
If the idea of a lens with zero distortion appeals to you, I’ve included purchase links below. Check it out, and thank you for reading. 🙂
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